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Behind Enemy Lines: Bengals vs Colts

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Josh Wilson from Stampede Blue chats with us for a few minutes to talk about Indianapolis as Cincinnati gears up for an important conference game between the Bengals and Colts.

John Grieshop

Q: After an 0-2 start, the Colts have rattled off 4 straight wins. Was the slow start simply a matter of the schedule (Denver and Philadelphia)? Or did something change?

A: The 0-2 start was mainly a result of the schedule in playing two very good teams to start off the season. And the Colts were close in both of those games with chances to win each near the end. At the same time, I think that the Colts really began to adjust and they began to make minor changes to improve the team. They embraced the talent they have in quarterback Andrew Luck more, became more aggressive, and the defense has improved as well - most notably generating pass rush. So while it was mainly a result of the schedule, the Colts have improved and adjusted, which has led to their current four-game winning streak.

Q: Andrew Luck is off to an amazing start. With 17 TDs in 6 games, he is just 6 TDs shy of his 2012 and 2013 season totals. What is different in 2014? Is it the improved receiving corps? Better line? Or just his handle of the offense in his third year?

A: Yes, it's a combination of all of those. This year, we haven't seen a different Luck, we've just seen a better Luck. The receiving core has helped, certainly, and the offensive line improvement has been an even bigger help. The offensive system has been tweaked a bit and Luck has more control of it and a better grasp. It has all started to come together in the passing game, with a good receiving core, a line that has been blocking well, improved play calling, and great execution from Luck. While he was very good in his first two years, we've seen him much better this year - which makes sense, considering it's only his third year.

Q: The only stat that sticks out (from a negative standpoint) for Luck is INTs. In 2013 he decreased his INTs from 2012 from 18-9. In 2014, Luck already has 7 INTs - second only to Kirk Cousins - and is on pace for 19. What is the reason for the high INT numbers? And is there any concern?

A: There are many people who look at those numbers with concern, certainly, and ideally you'd love to have your quarterback throw zero picks. But I'm not concerned at all, and here's why: in 24 games with Pep Hamilton as offensive coordinator (which is all but his rookie year), Luck's interception percentage is just 1.9% in the regular season and just 2.5% when including playoffs. The first number would rank as the second best all-time if Luck qualified and the second number would still be top-twelve all-time. Additionally, in the last two seasons (including playoffs) his touchdown to interception ratio has been 2:1, which would tie for the eighth best mark all-time if Luck qualified. As you can see, because of Luck's high volume of throws, he will logically throw more picks than others, and therefore looking just at the interception numbers can be a bit skewed. Plus, he's still only a third year player, with plenty of room to grow and improve.

Q: Despite the impressive offensive numbers (#1 in YPG, PPG and Passing YPG), the Colts rushing attack ranks just 16th in YPG and 26th in YPA. Why is the running game struggling?

A: Well, the running game is something that seems to be different each game, as some games this year the Colts have had some success running it, while most of the time they struggle. A big reason for this is Trent Richardson - while he's much improved from a year ago and looks a lot better, he's still not great. Ahmad Bradshaw is more of the versatile back and the Colts aren't giving him a ton of carries, in an effort to preserve his health. For the Colts, a lot of things need to go right during each play for a run to work (good play call, good blocking, good running, etc.) and they often have trouble putting it all together at once. Richardson isn't a back who's going to create many of his own plays without solid blocking, and while the run blocking has improved a lot this year, it's still rather inconsistent, it seems.

Q: At initial glance, I think the Colts defense looks better in 2014. However, in 2013, the Colts gave up 38+ points on five occasions, and while they have not given up those types of numbers in 2014, they have given up 28+ in three of their six games. Are there any concerns about the defense's ability to hold up?

A: I think if you look at the defense recently, there's plenty to be encouraged about. In the past four games the Colts have been very impressive, and the numbers back it up. I'll spare you most of them, but one of the most impressive ones is that in the last three games the Colts have allowed just three third down conversions combined. They've been rushing the passer well (without Robert Mathis, too!) and their secondary has continued on a very strong season. The question about the defense is whether they'll be able to keep up some of that success, and I do think that this is the best defense the Colts have had in several years at least, but as we saw against both the Broncos and Eagles (and the Texans) was that this defense also isn't consistently great. They had moments in all three of those games where they were, but overall they weren't consistent. That's the biggest step they need to take toward being considered good "for real."

Q: T.Y. Hilton is having a monster year. What makes him so difficult to cover?

A: His speed is a huge factor, and he's able to blow by defenders on deep passes. But he does so much more than that, and that's what makes him a good all-around receiver. His route running has improved a lot and it's clear the impact that Reggie Wayne has had on him in that regard. His timing with Andrew Luck is phenomenal, and they work on that quite a bit. Hilton has also learned to use his size to his advantage and has taken advantage of his speed too. When you combine the physical talent that he has with the work ethic that he has put into it, there's no wonder why he has had two good years in 2012 and 2013 and is on his way toward another one this season.

Q: The Bengals have shown to be vulnerable against the read option. How often (if at all) do the Colts use the read option with Luck?

A: Hardly at all - though head coach Chuck Pagano will be quick to point out that they did run one recently on a two-point conversion play. Ultimately, however, the Colts don't run the read option and I don't expect them to start anytime soon. Andrew Luck is a terrific threat running the ball, but his running comes when the play breaks down - they really don't call designed runs for him.

Q: If you were the Bengals Defensive Coordinator, how would you attack the Colts offense?

A: Be sure to get pressure on Andrew Luck. The Colts line has been playing better but not great, and there are still chances to get pressure on Luck. If you give him a lot of time to throw he will pick apart your secondary with ease, and even under pressure, Luck will make some fantastic plays both with his arm and his feet. You just have to weather the storm, know that you won't stop the Colts on every single play, and attempt to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. If you do that enough, there's a chance you'll be able to slow down their offense enough to win the game. It's not easy to stop this Colts offense, but also knowing their tendencies and playing good red zone defense is a huge key.

Q: If you were the Bengals Offensive Coordinator, how would you attack the Colts defense?

A: Utilize the tight end in the passing game, as the Colts are weak in the area of covering that position. It's a mismatch that opposing offensive coordinators should try to exploit. Additionally, run the football. The strength of this Colts team comes through their cornerbacks in defending the pass, and the defense is still rather suspect against the run game (though much improved from recent years). Running the football and targeting the tight end in the passing game are good ways to take advantage of the Colts' defense.

Q: At 4-2, is there any chance a team in the South can catch the Colts?

A: Honestly... not really. The AFC South just isn't a good division. The Jaguars are terrible, the Titans are closer to terrible than I expected, and the Texans don't have a quarterback. Really, the only other promising QB in the South apart from Luck is Blake Bortles in Jacksonville, and that team isn't going anywhere this year. We know it's a quarterback driven league, and the Colts' have one of the league's best - and some say they have the two best in the AFC South in Luck and Matt Hasselbeck. The Colts are 4-2 overall, 3-0 in the division, and have won 10 consecutive division games. There really doesn't appear to be much way the South catches the Colts, barring an unforeseen catastrophic injury to the Colts or something like that.

Q: The Bengals are currently decimated with injuries. Do the Colts have any significant injuries at this point in the season?

A: The Colts certainly have injured guys, but the hope is that at least some will be back for the game against the Bengals. I'm assuming that we're not talking about guys on injured reserve (because the Colts have several of those, including Robert Mathis), but corner Darius Butler, linemen Hugh Thornton and Jack Mewhort, and defensive lineman Arthur Jones are among the most notable injuries at this point. There's a chance that all four will be able to play on Sunday, though the likelihood of each varies. It sounds like the two linemen should definitely be back, though.

Q: On Sunday, the Bengals win if...?

A: The Bengals win if the Colts offense falters. That's the simplest way. In a game between two good teams like this, turnovers could prove to be especially costly for either team, so if the Colts' offense turns the ball over too much than the Bengals will win. Furthermore, if the Bengals can get into the type of game which they played last week - where they score quite a few points - then they have a great chance at winning. While the Colts are the league's top offense, if the Bengals can score a lot of points like they did last week, of course they'll have a good chance of winning. It'll be easier to beat the Colts' defense than the Colts' offense, so scoring a lot of points is a good way to ensure a chance to win against this team.

Q: What is your prediction for Sunday?

A: This will be a good, close game - that much I'm pretty sure about. These are two good football teams. Though I know people will call me a homer, I think the Colts pull it out in a high-scoring (though not like the Bengals' game last week) close game. I just think that with Andrew Luck, an inspired and improved team around him, and playing at home, the Colts should be able to win a close one.